Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior

'Open' prisons, in which detainees are allowed to live like regular citizens, should be a model for the U.S.
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Suomenlinna Island (Doran Larson)

It’s a postcard-perfect day on Suomenlinna Island, in Helsinki’s South Harbor. Warm for the first week of June, day trippers mix with Russian, Dutch, and Chinese tourists sporting sun shades and carrying cones of pink ice cream.

“Is this the prison?” asks a 40-something American woman wearing cargo pants and a floral sleeveless blouse.

Linda, my guide and translator, pauses beside me between the posts of an open picket fence. After six years of teaching as a volunteer inside American prisons, I’ve come from the private college where I work to investigate the Scandinavian reputation for humane prisons. It’s the end of my twelfth prison tour, and I consider the semantics of the question: If you can’t tell whether you’re in a prison, can it be a prison? I’ve never considered this in so many words. Yet I find that I know  the answer, having felt it inside a prison cell in Denmark: There is no punishment so effective as punishment that nowhere announces the intention to punish. Linda is an intern working on a degree in public policy. Young and thoroughly practical, she smiles and says to the tourists, “Yes, you are here.”  

Several prisons in the U.S. each hold nearly twice the prison population of Finland.

The Americans look shocked and afraid. The father glances at his wife. The wife cocks her head back, as though she’s ventured too far. The son—fit as my La Crosse-playing students—takes a step in reverse, just outside the gate, and says to his mother: “I told you.” (Linda clearly wonders what she’s said to cause such a reaction.)

Then the son adds, his voice cracking on a nervous attempt at sarcasm: “It’s sure reassuring to know we’re being protected from criminals.”

The Americans gather into a family huddle. Their whispers grow hot. The son grabs the top of his head—unable to believe this conversation is even taking place. Their response speaks to a particularly American reaction to prisons, and there’s nothing unusual in it. But we’ll leave them here to fill in the background needed to understand their dilemma.

***

Suomenlinna Island has hosted an “open” prison since 1971. The 95 male prisoners leave the prison grounds each day to do the township’s general maintenance or commute to the mainland for work or study. Serving time for theft, drug trafficking, assault, or murder, all the men here are on the verge of release. Cellblocks look like dorms at a state university. Though worse for wear, rooms feature flat-screen TVs, sound systems, and mini-refrigerators for the prisoners who can afford to rent them for prison-labor wages of 4.10 to 7.3 Euros per hour ($5.30 to $9.50).  With electronic monitoring, prisoners are allowed to spend time with their families in Helsinki. Men here enjoy a screened barbecue pit, a gym, and a dining hall where prisoners and staff eat together. Prisoners throughout Scandinavia wear their own clothes. Officers wear navy slacks, powder-blue shirts, nametags and shoulder bars; but they carry no batons, handcuffs, Tasers or pepper-spray. The assistant warden who has led Linda and me around, Timo, looks like a wizened roadie: graying beard, black vest and jeans, red shirt, biker boots, and a taste for slim cigars.

One might wonder just where is the “prison” part of this Scandinavian open prison. Where are the impenetrable barriers? The punishing conditions that satisfy an American sense of justice?

First, an important caveat: Nordic prisons are not all open facilities. Closed prisons here date to the mid-19th century, copied from Philadelphia’s Eastern State, or New York’s Auburn, back when those prisons represented models of humane treatment. To an American eye, these prisons look like prisons: 10-meter walls, cameras, steel doors. I’ve heard men describe Scandinavian closed-prison conditions in ways that echo those of the American prison where I have led a writing workshop since 2006: officials intent on making life onerous, long hours in lockup, arbitrarily enforced rules.

Yet inside the four high-security prisons I’ve visited in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, common areas included table tennis, pool tables, steel darts, and aquariums. Prisoner art ornamented walls painted in mild greens and browns and blues. But the most profound difference is that correctional officers fill both rehabilitative and security roles. Each prisoner has a “contact officer” who monitors and helps advance progress toward return to the world outside—a practice introduced to help officers avoid the damage experienced by performing purely punitive functions: stress, hypertension, alcoholism, suicide, and other job-related hazards that today plague American corrections officers, who have an average life expectancy of 59.

This is all possible because, throughout Scandinavia, criminal justice policy rarely enters political debate. Decisions about best practices are left to professionals in the field, who are often published criminologists and consult closely with academics. Sustaining the barrier between populist politics and results-based prison policy are media that don’t sensationalize crime—if they report it at all. And all of this takes place in nations with established histories of consensual politics, relatively small and homogenous populations, and the best social service networks in the world, including the best public education. Standing outside a Nordic closed prison, the American son would have felt perfectly at ease. But inside, northern Europe’s closed facilities operate along the lines of humanism that American prisons abandoned early, under a host of pressures -- such as overcrowding, the push to make prisons profitable by contracting out collective labor, the use of unpaid prisoners as private farmhands, and, since 1973, the rise of an $80 billion mass incarceration industry. There is also the matter of scale. The prison population of Sweden (6,900) is less than half the population of Rikers Island at its height (14,000). Several prisons in the U.S. each hold nearly twice the prison population of Finland. This is not simply the difference between large and much smaller countries. U.S. incarceration rates are the highest in the world, about 10 times those throughout Scandinavia, which are among the world’s lowest.

Administrative segregation prisoners take part in a group therapy session at San Quentin state prison in California. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

There’s certainly a tipping point at which smaller numbers of prisoners allow for a different quality of prison practice. But the issue here is the instinctive, visceral fear of prisons and prisoners. It is about basic assumptions regarding what states must do to people who violate the law, not only in order to secure the safety, but to satisfy the sense of justice, of law-abiding citizens. Even if the U.S. prison population dropped by 90 percent overnight, it’s not clear that U.S. prison officials, under the eye of the public and politicians, would either know how or be allowed to handle the remaining prisoners differently. And this is at a time when even tough-on-crime politicians acknowledge that states are going broke supporting prisons with no positive return to taxpayers—including no net boost to public safety. So this is both a philosophical quandary and a practical question: How is it that Nordic prisons that seem so cushy yield recidivism rates one-half to one-third of those in the U.S. (20-30 percent versus 40-70 percent)? And why can’t the U.S. reduce prison populations not simply through drug courts and very tepid sentencing reforms but by creating more transformative prisons? The answers emerge from the history that stands behind these American tourists’ nervous condition.

Twenty years of social science research has drawn a consistently clear portrait of the rise of America’s unprecedented regime of mass incarceration: Over the past four decades, Republicans and Democrats have waged a “tougher on crime than you” arms race built upon white unease with the disruption of the old racial order brought about by the civil rights and Black Power movements. Once segregation was declared unconstitutional and black activists began to demand equal rights, white fear called out for “law and order.” Seeking votes and profits, politicians and media have encouraged the white public’s worst fears of becoming the victims of black perpetrators. Under the guise of the wars on drugs, crime, and terror, the urban poor and disenfranchised, especially young black men, have been rounded up in mass numbers, largely for non-violent drug crimes, of which middle-class whites have been consistently shown to be equal perpetrators. 

Meanwhile, even the most serious television shows like Law & Order and The Wire present black criminals as overrepresented by unscrupulous defense lawyers—defending the “punks” that George Zimmerman believed “always get away with it.” And these trends have continued even though crime rates have been dropping since the early 90s, while only one in 40 criminal cases goes to jury trial and prosecutors bargain pleas by threatening suspects with the longest prison sentences in the industrialized world.

Decades of research show that incarceration and crime rates in the U.S. bear no fixed relationship. Between 1999 and 2009, for example, New York shrank its prison population by 20 percent while crime rates dropped by 29 percent; from 2000 to 2010, Indiana increased its prison population by 45 percent and reduced its crime rate by .08 percent. In the 1950s, Finland made the decision to lower its incarceration rates in line with Scandinavian norms; it shrank that rate by 75 percent across periods of both rising and stable crime. Prison size is not determined by crime rates but by what states decide to treat as crimes, how much punishment the public demands, and, in the U.S. today, how successful the prison industry is in fomenting this demand. And all of these factors are determined by whom voters imagine this punishment landing upon.

This peculiarly American institutionalization has created a nation where few middle-class white Americans can name anyone they know personally who has been sentenced to prison, and even fewer black Americans of any class cannot.

In 1993, Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie (a major influence on Scandinavian penal policy) had already unpacked this phenomenon. In Crime Control as Industry, Christie concluded that the more unlike oneself the imagined perpetrator of crime, the harsher the conditions one will agree to impose upon convicted criminals, and the greater the range of acts one will agree should be designated as crimes. More homogeneous nations institutionalize mercy, which is to say they attend more closely to the circumstances surrounding individual criminal acts. The opposite tendency, expressed in mandatory sentencing and indiscriminate “three strikes” laws, not only results from, but widens social distance. The harshness of the punishment that fearful voters are convinced is the only thing that works on people who don’t think or act like them becomes a measure of the moral distance between these voters and people identified as criminals.

Author Kenneth E. Hartman has lived inside California prisons for over three decades. In an essay in the forthcoming book, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, he speaks to why that system sees 75 percent of all repeat parolees back within three years:

Most prisoners are uneducated, riddled with unresolved traumas and ill-treated mental health problems, drug and alcohol addictions, and self-esteem issues far too often bordering on the pathological. The vast majority has never received competent health care, mental health care, drug treatment, education or even an opportunity to look at themselves as humans. Had any of these far less draconian interventions been tried… no doubt many of my peers would be leading productive lives. We internalize the separation and removal, the assumed less-than status, and hold up the idiotic and vainglorious pride we pretend to, like clown’s make-up, to hide our shame. In the end, the vast majority of us become exactly who we are told we are: violent, irrational, and incapable of conducting ourselves like conscious adults. It is a tragic opera with an obvious outcome. Nothing else works is not a statement of fact; it is the declaration of an ideology. This ideology holds that punishment, for the sake of the infliction of pain, is the logical response to all misbehavior. It is also a convenient cover story behind which powerful special interest groups hide.

Though white, Hartman echoes the observations of the same Black Power prison writers of the 1960s and ‘70s, whose insights helped inspire white backlash: Convicted criminals bring to prison issues that devolve directly from poverty and poverty’s traumatic fallout: broken and abusive homes, communities and schools; mental illness, alcoholism, and addiction.  Rather than remediating the effects of these issues, prisons tend to institutionalize them.

 Those of us in the virtually prison-immune demographics also fail to credit convicted people with the simple capacity to see and understand where they are. No imprisoned American has to be told she has been left to the whims of under-screened and under-trained staff, most of whom are also from impoverished circumstances. They see staff rewarded with promotion for harsh treatment of prisoners and on the way to solid pensions. They know that it doesn’t matter what potential for shame, for self-castigation, penitence, or desire to make amends resides inside any American prisoner. Parole decisions are made by political appointees who watch the backs of their patrons. The system itself breeds cynical resentment. Witnessing the humiliation, racism, and physical assault perpetrated against prisoners—by staff, or tolerated between prisoners—can overfill the psychological space where reflection and self-searching might occur.

Now imagine yourself in a prison that commands a view from a tourist brochure. Your cell phone lies on a shelf, next to a TV and CD player, inside a prison that lets you go to paid work or study. There is no perimeter wall. Prison staff will help you with free-world social services to cover a missed month’s rent on your family’s apartment. Another will help you look for work, or for the next stage of education. Imagine yourself a prisoner who knows he is in prison for what he did, not because of his color or class, or because, lacking the resources for a proper defense, he plea-bargained under threat of near-geological years of incarceration. But also imagine living on this lovely island knowing, every minute of every day, that this is not your home, these people are not your family, your friends, your children, and you are always one misstep from a cell in a closed prison. You have strict curfews. In town you carry an electronic anklet. Yet nothing here feels unfair or unreasonable. You have, after all, committed a crime serious enough to make a range of other remedies untenable. Nothing you can see or touch or smell or taste, and no interaction with staff gives you anything to blame or resent about the system that brought you here.

This is the polished glass nightmare. Every emotional discomfort, every moment of remorse that you might try to cover with resentment of the system, everything you try to grip onto to crawl away from personal responsibility slides back into the pit of the self. Judges and prosecutors are unelected professionals who are under political pressure only to minimize prison populations. The message everywhere you look and walk is the same. You did this to yourself. You sit in a university classroom, but you harbor a secret. You are not like the others. On the way to work, you walk along a lovely sea wall, among kids and adults on holiday, but you know you are not free. You look like them; they never raise an eyebrow at you. But you know. You are under quarantine, and the disease is the past you made for yourself. Everything is being done to help and prepare you to clear this secret and live again like others. But the weight, finally, rests with you. This truly existential weight is implicit in the principle of normality, which is practiced throughout Scandinavian prisons: “The punishment is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed,” reads a fact sheet on criminal services in Norway. “During the serving of a sentence, life inside will resemble life outside as much as possible. You need a reason to deny a sentenced offender his rights, not to grant them. Progression through a sentence should be aimed as much as possible at returning to the community. The more closed a system is, the harder it will be to return to freedom.”

 One has to wonder if 10 years in such a glass funnel, directing all shame, anger and recrimination back onto oneself is not a morally harsher sentence than twice that time inside a 24-hour war zone where some of the most powerful warriors wear state uniforms, where family visits are made into scenes of collective humiliation, and where the few rehabilitative programs are run either by other prisoners or by unionized staff who suffer even less scrutiny than guards.

Inside U.S. prisons, decades can be filled with the labor of simple survival. Reflection upon the decisions that brought anyone to confinement must overcome the bitterness evoked by a system that sustains such an environment.

***

I met Erik in a Danish open prison where he was finishing a 10-year sentence for a drug-related murder. He began addiction treatment and work toward his public-school diploma while awaiting the appeal of his case. He continued his studies while serving two years in a closed prison. The open prison of Søbysøgård occupies an old manor farm amid rolling hills laced with suburban streets and alcoves. Buildings erected in the 17th century house administrative offices and classrooms with carved moldings, fireplaces, and towering windows. There is no perimeter wall and no fences. Prisoners work in a small dairy, or in three greenhouses raising organic herbs, zucchini, and cucumbers. Having done well in school (his English is excellent), Erik is allowed to study full-time for his university degree. He wants to earn a master’s, “To give me a better chance of getting a job, with a prison record.” (His record will be cleared after five years if he works in the private sector; after ten years if he works in the public sector.) Erik’s room is about 8 by 12 feet, with TV, computer (to facilitate on-line study on strictly limited sites), sound system, and a cell phone he can use to call home or get calls at any time. When I visited, he stressed the importance of the phone for keeping contact with family, to sustain emotional ties, as well as “to vent and to heal.” One wall is covered with pictures of himself as a younger man with his girlfriend. The housing unit has a clean, bright communal kitchen. Men cook together in order to save money. A bus takes them to a grocery where local citizens wait outside while the men shop.

Edvin, the director of education, is a tall man who dresses like a farmer and sits by quietly while I speak with Erik and two other men, who together represent the racial demographics in Scandinavian prisons as a whole: two are white natives and the third is a foreign-born man of color. In Edvin’s presence they are openly critical of the life inside closed prisons. All express thanks that they are not in one, let alone in the American prisons they have seen on TV. On the last walk from the dairy down the gravel driveway, I learn why they trust Edvin. He’s concerned about plans to build a closed prison adjacent to Søbysøgård. At the end of the drive, he stops and faces me.

“I worry that we will ruin the spirit of Søbysøgård.”

He’s described that spirit throughout our tour: sober work and study, supportive community, and active reintegration into life outside. An officer that I spoke to expressed a similar sentiment. He’d served in a closed prison, and he did not want to go back.

But it was inside Erik’s cell that dread lifted my neck hairs at the thought of serving time in such a place. A breeze touched the leaves of the maple tree outside his window. Then it curled the corners of the pictures tacked and taped to the wall: Erik in a tux beside his silver-tiara-ed girl; he and friends on a beach with his dog, a dopey-looking setter. Prisoners develop a sixth sense for the moods of others. It’s a required skill for anyone who has lived with people who suffer emotional and mental disorders that can turn violent. He sensed that something was up. I looked at him.

“I did this to myself,” he said.

I did not know what to say. I said, “I’m sorry.”

“Not as sorry as I am.”

***

Jeremy has been in my maximum-security writing workshop for three years. He’s serving 22 years to life. He has difficulty getting to the class due to conflicts with religious practice and guards that seem to enjoy picking on him because he’s Puerto Rican, Muslim, physically slight (about 5’5” and 140 pounds), and a law-library clerk (thus standing just above child molesters among guards’ favorite targets). His major project has been a long essay about his crime. He was raised by an abusive stepfather who once held a gun to his head and threatened to kill him. On the street, he was harassed by a neighborhood bully. The bully was strong and tough but, unlike Jeremy, unpopular with girls. The bully once broke Jeremy’s arm so badly that a steel plate now holds it together. Without a place of retreat either inside or outside his home, Jeremy decided to kill himself. He took his father’s gun. He was high, but needed to get higher to work up his courage, when he ran into the bully outside a liquor store and shot him. Jeremy was 17.

He’s mindful of actions he might have taken: moving in with his sister, seeking outside help, even getting control of his popularity with girls. With a merely competent lawyer his story might have played well with a jury, but he had no money for a real defense. He didn’t deny that he’d killed. He took a plea bargain from a DA who threatened what prisoners call a “lights out”  stretch of years, used to scare suspects into saving the state the time and costs of a jury trial.

I have listened to men complain about their cases, their do-nothing lawyers, about racism. Jeremy does not complain. He’s a self-effacing young man. But I wonder what he’ll be by his first parole hearing at age 40. He can feel no more profound regret than he does already for the family of the young man he killed. He can feel no deeper remorse for his actions. Yet for another 18 years he will endure counselors (many of them former guards) who do little more than keep prisoner files in order. He will continue the daily work of self-protection from men in need of mental health and addiction care. He’ll continue to do white-collar work for wages that can be counted in dimes and pennies. He’ll talk with his sister from a phone in the yard, impatient men waiting behind him, at sky-high rates charged only to prisoners. And for 18 years he’ll negotiate the moods of correctional officers who find in him enjoyable sport. Jeremy is no longer the scared kid who pulled a trigger. He has said, in many ways, “I did this to myself.” But by the time he leaves he may be too far removed from that kid, across decades among violently desperate men, and staff whose simplistic refrain stretches nation-wide: “If you can’t do the time, you shouldn’t have done the crime.”

If Jeremy seems too much the poster child for more merciful prisons, consider Jake: white and sent by his mother’s hard work to private schools, Jake became enamored of the mystique around organized crime. He killed his crime partner, as he admits now, in large part to complete his street cred as a gangster. Jake, too, takes the full weight for his crime. He was young and stupid. He believed that the man he killed had already gotten away with murder. This was all part of a self-credentialing plan. He went to trial with a legendary defense lawyer, and lost. He carries the lights-out years that Jeremy bargained out of. And every night that we sit discussing his essays about his crime, his regrets, or his research into theories of criminal deterrence, I can see and hear him continue an internal wrestling match. The self-loathing that wells up from thinking about the destructive arrogance of his crime grapples with resentment at the destructive stupidity of the prison.

I’ve heard older men describe how they came in cocky, then grew into shame and remorse. Yet their regret is regularly overshadowed by anger against the arbitrary suffering that the prison perpetrates. These older, wiser men, like Kenneth Hartman, know this is the toughest challenge inside. The chaos of the life that put them in prison eventually evolves into the self-understanding that comes with age and assuming the weight of their crimes. But then begins the daily labor of denying the prison its power to turn them into the animals it sees in condemned people. As Rutgers University professor of education, Benjamin Justice, and Yale Law professor Tracey Meares observe, the overt curriculum of the system is about fairness, due process, and protection of law-abiding citizens. But for the objects of policing and punishment, “the American criminal justice system offers…race- and class‐based lessons on who is a citizen deserving of fairness and justice and who constitutes a group of dangerous others deserving of severe punishment, monitoring, and virtual branding.”

For a forthcoming book and digital archive, over the past four years I have been soliciting, reading, and editing non-fiction essays by incarcerated Americans writing about their experience inside—essays from over half the states, by black, white, Latina/o, Native American, and Asian and Pacific Island prisoners; by men, women, and gender-variant prisoners; by first-timers and by people who were first locked up when Lyndon Johnson was president. Though many praise individuals who have helped them inside, not one essay among several hundred expresses the belief that the system exists at its current scale for any other reason than the tax-funded profits and jobs it provides.

Beatings and purely arbitrary punishment are the norm. Health care is poor when it is not dangerous. In many facilities, programs for addicts and alcoholics (who make up 85 percent of those convicted of violent crimes) are so inadequate that the names on waiting lists today will wait decades for help. And no matter the race of the writer, the racism within the system is assumed if not explicitly criticized. What political prisoner, reformer, and eventual California prison administrator Kate Richards O’Hare wrote in her book In Prison in 1923 remains true today: “…by the workings of the prison system society commits every crime against the criminal that the criminal is charged with committing against society.”

Scandinavian prisons are roughly as racially and ethnically homogeneous as American prisons: 70 percent of Nordic prisoners are ethnically white citizens; the other 30 percent are foreign-born (mostly from other EU countries). In U.S. prisons, ethnic and racial minorities make up over 60 percent of the population. The difference is that the majority of Scandinavian prisoners look like the majority—including the voting majority—outside.  Laws, enforcement policies, and prison practices are those that the majority of citizens assume would work for themselves. Whatever other differences may exist between law-abiding families and people convicted of crimes, the prison system itself does not seek to widen the social distance between them.

Though anti-immigrant racism has been on the rise in Europe for years, when its most egregious incident occurred in Norway—the massacre of 69 citizens, including many children—the nation’s response was a deeper embrace of tolerance. (Roses became the symbol of this tolerance. Import tariffs on roses were dropped so that all Norwegians could contribute to spontaneous memorials.) In this rare case, the killer will likely never see the free world again. But his suffering is and will continue to be his own.

In 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Baumont came to America to study its prisons. They conclude their report with a warning: “…guard against extremes, and do not let the zeal with which you advocate certain means obscure the object sought to be obtained by them.”   

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Doran Larson

Doran Larson is a professor of English at Hamilton College and the editor of the forthcoming Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America.

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